By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
With more activities and digital connections than ever, are children missing out on crucial me tim
With todays kids busier than ever, obligations like school work, extracurricular activities or pre-college resume building, social media and technology have become key to staying in touch with friends. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Texas-based parenting author and blogger Kay Wyma learned the hard way the value of downtime from her oldest son.

I had that kid in five different play groups and in a Spanish class by the time he was 2. By age 3, he was in preschool, on soccer and T-ball teams while taking tennis lessons, Wyma said. That treadmill moved fast going nowhere.

Like most parents, Wyma says that as a new mom, she was seduced by a modern parenting idea that in order for children to be successful adults, they have to start achieving young.

Society convinces young families that toddlers must be on, for example, a soccer team. Because if the kid doesn't start young, he won't be included on the pee-wee team, Wyma said. He'll be left out, a loser, no friends, no place, no acceptance, no belonging. Which is the last thing any parent wants for their kid.

As childrens schedules have ballooned, so has their fondness for keeping in touch with friends and family via technology and social media. One Pew study from earlier this year found that 92 percent of kids ages 13 to 17 go online daily, mostly to use social media.

But a new study from Pew Research Center suggests that kids dont keep connected with friends via social media and mobile technology just because they like their devices, but because they have less free time. While 95 percent of kids ages 13 to 17 reported spending time with friends in person, away from school at least occasionally, just 25 percent reported doing so on a daily basis.

Teens may have some time with their friends during school or maybe after school, but they just dont have the opportunity to roam like they used to, Pew study co-author Amanda Lenhart said. Digital spaces have become the place where their social lives unfold."

But some experts wonder if todays teens are so overbooked and constantly connected via technology that they could be missing out on something vitally important: Quiet alone time.

Accustomed to full calendars, we almost feel naked without a full list of to-do's. But down time is critically important, Wyma said. How will a kid ever sink into their unique giftedness if pre-set activities and others around them are defining it for them?

Dwindling play

As children and teens schedules get more busy, James Madison University child development and play expert Dr. Dorothy Sluss says other important things get pushed to the margins of a childs life.

Sluss says one of those things is what she calls free play that is, unstructured, spontaneous playtime.

The real problem is that in our society, play is considered a four-letter word. It doesnt have outcomes you can immediately see, so we think it must not be valuable, Sluss said. If you put a kid in tee ball, you can see them in a uniform and see them doing something as a member of a team, but if its just one or two kids in the yard playing catch, we dont see value in that.

But Sluss says the value is there in spades, arguing that play is fundamental to a childs physical, emotional and social development.

When you play, for example, you learn to take turns, you learn whats fair and whats not. If someone doesnt play by the rules, the other kids will often kick them out, Sluss said. That concept of give and take that helps kids understand the way our world and culture works. The rules of the game, if you will, start with play.

Sluss says that children who dont get a good mix of different kinds of play are basically limited in a variety of ways for example, a child who plays mostly indoors or only with video games may not develop social skills they would gain innately from playing with other kids in other settings.

Play allows children to learn from others in a way they cant when theyre engaged with electronics. If theyre playing (video games), the machine sets the rules of play, so theres not give and take, Sluss said. When kids use their imagination in free play, they make the rules according to their own measure. It empowers kids to do and be all they can be.

The same problems can arise when adults limit playtime with too much rigid routine. A groundbreaking Georgia State University study published in 1998 studied Atlanta school districts that cut back or eliminated recess to raise test scores because, as the study put it, recess disrupts the work patterns of the children, causing high levels of excitement and subsequent inattentiveness.

The study examined the classroom behaviors of 43 elementary students in the district, five of whom were diagnosed with ADD, concluding that free play gained through recess actually improved student performance 60 percent accomplished more work and fidgeted less on recess days than non-recess days.

If you look at how humans have evolved, play has evolved with us as we adapt to change, Sluss said. It may be that play needs to change (to adapt to playing with technology), but right now, there is nothing that allows children to develop as they do when they (free) play.

Beneficial boredom

Psychologist and author Adam Cox says that kids who are incredibly busy and incredibly connected also miss out on something they may not even know they need: Boredom.

Long-term, constant use of electronics creates a state of mental hyper-arousal, where what I want is more, which is why it can be addicting, Cox said. If you have a mind that is all peaks and no valleys, you never have those reflective moments.

Those reflective moments are important for both kids and adults because they foster creativity, says Yalda Uhls, child psychologist and author of upcoming parenting book, Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.

We need to let brains wander because as they wander, thats when you create new ideas, new connections, Uhls said. Just as we need to let our bodies relax, we need to let our brains rest.

Allowing the mind to wander is also crucial for self-esteem and managing emotions, says Linda Perlman Gordon, Maryland-based psychotherapist and co-author of How to Connect with your iTeen: A Parenting Roadmap.

If you dont learn how to soothe yourself and always have this constant companion, you may not learn how to find it in yourself, Gordon said. Boredom allows them to realize boredom is okay so they find their own solutions.

Yet the solution isnt to take technology away from kids, Cox said, because removing such a huge source of stimulation only creates a vacuum where kids feel misunderstood.

We think that if we make childrens lives simpler, their lives will be more pure and more satisfactory. That is utter nonsense, Cox said. No kid sits back and says, Thank you so much for taking my phone away and giving me hours to reflect on who I am as a person, Cox said. You have to replace that stimulation with something just as meaningful, such as meaningful work.

The trick for parents is to pencil in some free time between all the obligations to help kids be their best.

Creativity and problem solving flourish in moments where the boundaries and activities are not defined, Wyma said. Encourage and spur independent thinking by giving whatever you think as an answer to the inevitable, What am I supposed to do? You never know what might arrive on the other side.